Illustration by Adriana Guarderas

Customer Service Doesn’t Have to be the Pits

Illustration by Adriana Guarderas

Illustration by Adriana Guarderas

Customer service isn’t always easy. My experiences—often trial by fire—have trained me to diplomatically handle irate—and even mentally unstable—customers. I’ve had to be the therapist and verbal punching bag. I’ve been treated like an incompetent idiot, all while having to maintain a sweet expression and helpful attitude.

Don’t get me wrong—most customers are perfectly pleasant, and some are even a joy to be around. I largely attribute their kindness to their being a decent human being, and my guess is that many of them have worked in customer service as well.

I’ve had the whole gamut of personalities. One customer said I was the “rudest person they’d ever met,” while another genuinely said that seeing me was “like seeing sunshine.” You can’t always anticipate what kind of customer will walk in the door, but you can choose how you handle them. You can also choose how you behave as a customer yourself.

Tips for handling aggravated customers:
1.) Emotionally detach yourself from your job.

I still have trouble with this; I always want to excel at my job, so I intrinsically become emotionally involved. I’ve slowly learned that when a customer is unkind to you or aggressive, it’s not a reflection of you. Their unnecessary aggression and negative reaction is their problem.

I’m not saying that you should be rude or unhelpful, but you should emotionally withdraw yourself from their attacks. You could do a perfect job every day, but some people will still find fault in anything that you do, or don’t do. You can bend over backwards trying to please them, but someone, somewhere, will find something to complain about. Often it’s about things that are outside of your control, like your company’s policies.

2.) If you messed up, admit it. If you were in their situation, you’d want them to own up to their mistakes too. (And don’t blame your mistakes on other co-workers; it makes you a crappy person to be around.)

This is general good practice in life. You may want to be head-strong and prideful (especially when under attack), but everyone makes mistakes. And usually, when you are brave enough to admit that you’re imperfect, people will appreciate it.

An alternate option that you should avoid is making a co-worker into a scapegoat. “Oh, that person helped you? They’re an idiot; I had nothing to do with THAT,” when inside you’re saying to yourself, “Fuck, I really messed up but I don’t want this person to yell at me anymore!” Although self-preservation is telling you to blame someone who isn’t at fault, fight the urge. If you unjustifiably throw your co-worker under the bus, you come off like an asshole to any other co-workers within earshot, and they’ll lose trust in you—very fast.

Once you’ve been courageous enough to fight your inner impulses and to admit your mistake, be sure to let the customer know that you’ll work on fixing the issue ASAP.

3.) Realize that they’re probably just having a shitty day, and they just need someone to vent to.

This plays into number 1. Everyone has off days. The toilet overflowed, they had a fight with their partner, and they just found out that they aren’t getting the raise that they desperately need to send their kid to college.

If they’re having an excessively over-the-top reaction to something minimal, “My chicken sandwich has mustard on it, I fucking hate mustard!! Where’s your manager!?” Try to have empathy. I know it’s a challenge, but do it anyway. Try to remember a time when you were having a really rough day, and you just snapped. You felt terrible afterwards, right? It’ll be the same for this person too. Trust me; everyone goes through this.

Although you should practice empathy, be sure you don’t make their emotions, your emotions. Keep a cool head by reminding yourself that their frustration is largely based on issues that have nothing to do with you.

4.) If they are return customers, and they’re always jerks, still acknowledge that it’s them, not you. From stories that I’ve heard, these types are like this with other customer service people and even their family.

If you have a manager/supervisor who has your back (I know this isn’t always the case), ask them if they can come down to assist you. Do not pass the customer off to your colleague; that’s a really shitty thing to do. Often times, repeat offenders are like that because they want to believe they’re superior to you (or anyone) in some way. That’s why I suggest that your supervisor steps in. These people will usually calm down, or their personality will magically change, when someone arrives who has hiring and firing power over you.

If your supervisor won’t or can’t come to your rescue, a big smile and flattery helps –a lot.

Being a Pleasant Customer:

If you stop reading here, the best advice I can give you for being a great customer is to have empathy.

I get it. Shit is just not working the way it’s supposed to. The beef chow mein you ordered is missing the beef and you’re on a meat bender. You accrued late fines at the library, but you swear that you turned your books in on time. You finally got your coffee after that hellishly long line, but it’s lukewarm when you rightfully expected it to be piping hot.

About a year ago I had to take a day off of work to resolve an installation problem with Creative Cloud’s Photoshop and Illustrator. I had been working to resolve the issue on my own for the past week with no success. I needed the problem resolved ASAP. The next day I had to turn in a project that required me to use both Photoshop and Illustrator. I was totally screwed if this didn’t work out. I crossed my fingers and hoped that it would be an easy fix with the rep on the phone line.

I was on the phone with the rep for six hours. You read that right, six hours. I was incredibly frustrated, but I didn’t take out my frustrations on the rep. I understood that this guy in India wasn’t at fault for the install repeatedly messing up, he was there to help me any way that he could. Adobe hadn’t given him the resources to help my particular case and that had nothing to do with him as an employee.

Empathy made what could have been a miserable experience for both of us an enjoyable one. I learned about his life in India, and that he did graphic design on his off hours. By practicing empathy, I avoided growing a stress-induced ulcer and I learned something about someone.

I promise that you can have a good—or at least a decent time getting customer service issues resolved.

Tips for customers on keeping their cool to receive great service:
1.) When you start getting angry, take ten seconds to stop, think and calm yourself down.

Like with anything, take time to relax before you say or do something that you’ll regret. Mistakes happen, and if you tell the rep what’s wrong, there’s an extremely high chance the problem will be resolved right then. You’ll also save yourself a lot of unnecessary self-reflection in the future: “Why did I blow up over someone handing me a regular donut over an old-fashioned?”

2.) Put things into perspective.

You might already be doing this step if you did number 1. Is this item or service really that important? If this doesn’t get done will you lose your home? Will you or your family be in danger?

Try to consider how lucky you are to have a life where you encounter customer service and are able to purchase things on a regular basis. You are very fortunate. I’m not saying that you don’t have the right to make a complaint; you should if something isn’t right. Just be sure to briefly reflect on how this particular instance will affect your life. Chances are that it won’t matter in the grand scheme of things. That’s why it’s best to keep your cool.

3.) Realize that the customer service rep is a human being.

The customer service rep is a human like you. They might be having a bad day too. Also, they are probably getting paid minimum wage and have an additional job. Since you don’t know much about this person, take it easy. They are likely trying their best to help you, and if you’re kind, you’re more likely to get good service.

If you’re angry and/or verbally abusive, you will make most people nervous. Then they’ll move slower to resolve your issue. If they aren’t a nervous personality, they might stop you from getting what you want out of spite. Think about it: if you encountered someone, who within minutes of meeting you was aggressive and dehumanizing, would you want to help that person?

4.) If the customer service rep is really no help and doesn’t seem to care, ask for their name and to talk to their supervisor.

Asking for the apathetic employee’s name is a good way to help them realize that they are accountable for their actions (or inactions). Ask for their name in a calm manner. Then (calmly) ask if they can get their manager, so you can bring the complaint to them.

You don’t want to use this tactic when you first voice your complaint. This is a last resort. Usually, the apathetic rep will perk up and try their best to fix the situation before their supervisor gets involved. If they don’t, at least someone else will be available to fix the issue.

Do you have any tips or tricks for dealing with upset customers? Do you have advice on keeping your cool when things don’t work out? Let me know, I’d love to hear your thoughts!

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